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Victory over Zebre could prove crucial in Ulster bid for the play-offs, says Piutau

By Jonathan Bradley

Not even Mother Nature, it seems, can dim the considerable talents of Ulster's Charles Piutau. While it's fair to say the 17-times capped All Black did not move to Belfast for the weather, last week's game with Treviso was still something out of the ordinary after an afternoon deluge that did not let up until well after the final whistle left parts of the Kingspan Stadium underneath considerable pools of water.

The province dealt with the conditions relatively well, with only some inaccuracy from opportunities in the corner stopping them from securing a much needed try-bonus, but it was their third and final score from Piutau that was the undoubted highlight for the soaked masses on the terraces.

With Stuart Olding having switched to out-half only moments before, he spotted Piutau calling for the ball on the wing and executed a high risk, high reward cross-kick.

Making light of the conditions, Piutau brilliantly gathered a ball that had been handled like a bar of soap throughout the game and finished strongly in the corner.

Speaking immediately after the game, Les Kiss chuckled at the ambition of the play, but for Piutau - a man who spent the formative years of his professional career in Auckland, New Zealand's wettest city - the heaviest rain many Ulster players could remember seeing at Kingspan Stadium was little reason to curb attacking instincts.

"I was calling that play all night long," he said emphatically.

"Sometimes you have to be wary about playing too safe, going into your shell.

"The option was on and I was just lucky enough to finish it.

"It was quite an experience to play in that game.

"It's always nice to get to play in some sun but winning games is what's most important.

"There were some good patches, some good stuff, but we definitely left some opportunities out there, some tries.

"Treviso came out and played well but we can definitely improve.

"To be honest, you can't blame the conditions. It was really wet but there were still times that we could throw the ball around. We can learn from it and hopefully this week put it right."

Come rain, hail, sleet or snow, there will be no excuses for Ulster should they fail to do the business against Zebre tomorrow evening (6pm kick-off).

A game that was itself originally postponed thanks to extreme weather - a frozen pitch back in November - a win will take Ulster into the PRO12's fourth and final play-off position with five games remaining.

After beginning the season with five consecutive victories, Ulster have spent just one week in the play-off spots since the start of November but, with four wins on the spin, Piutau believes it will be a significant mental boost for the province to have their destiny back in their own hands.

"I think being outside of that top four, there's always a lot of talk," he said.

"We've come through some rough patches and we've taken a lot of confidence from the last few wins.

"We're building quite well and it'd be really big for us.

"I think the coaches are doing a great job and focusing on the bigger picture, but for us we just stick our heads down and focus week to week."

With that meaning the challenge of Zebre, Ulster are hoping for a better showing but the same result as when the two sides met in Parma in the last weekend of February.

In what was a strange contest, Ulster ran in six tries that afternoon but were considerably below their expected performance level.

While they will again be without their Irish internationals - Rory Best, Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson are in the side that face Wales tonight and Craig Gilroy is a travelling reserve, although Luke Marshall and Jared Payne were both at Kingspan yesterday - Piutau says there can be no slip in standards this time.

Given the fixtures to come - Ulster have the top three still to play as well as Newport and Cardiff - it would be easy to look beyond the challenge of tomorrow evening, but Zebre have plenty of motivation thanks to their own race with Treviso for a Champions Cup spot next season.

"We're treating it as a tough game, it's a must-win for us," he said of the visit from the league's worst side.

"The prep has been really good. The coaches have been really drilling us to be at our best, keep improving.

"I can't say too much about Zebre but for what we are and what we want to achieve, we want to win this competition. This is an important step towards that.

"When we played them over there it was a good fight and we're expecting it to be tough.

"We've got some learnings and we'll make a few changes but nothing major.

"I think it was very different over there, a nice sunny day. Hopefully it'll be like that."

And even if it isn't, Piutau will still be calling for that ball.

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